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Rise in reduced prison sentences stirs uproar in Connecticut

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A sharp rise in the number of Connecticut inmates, including convicted killers, who have had their prison sentences reduced in the past year has led to an uproar over the power wielded by the state's relatively obscure Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Gov. Ned Lamont this week replaced the chair of that board, the Rev. Carleton Giles, after the former Norwalk police officer acknowledged unilaterally instituting a policy change that resulted in a rise in commutations, from an average of about three per year to 71 in 2022, lawmakers said.

Those included 44 commutations for convicted murders, who had an average of 15 years shaved off their sentences, according to lawmakers.

The state Senate on Wednesday voted 21-14 to reappoint Giles as a regular member of the board, following a lengthy debate. The vote was largely among party lines, with most Democrats supporting him.

His appointment and four others approved by senators now head to the state House.

Sen. John Kissel, the ranking Republican on the Senate's Judiciary Committee, was among those who opposed the reappointment.

Giles “decided to issue a commutation policy on steroids, like we have never seen here in the state of Connecticut,” Kissel said.

Giles declined to comment Wednesday. But during his confirmation hearing in March, he testified that the decision was part of the state's ongoing “second-chance society” initiative to reform the prison system.

Giles said he and two other board members reviewed the applications and approved the commutations. He acknowledged he did not notify lawmakers or the governor of the change beforehand.

“The enabling statutes allow the Board of Pardons and Paroles to make its own policy,” he testified.

Democrats who supported Giles noted that prisoners must still undergo both a prescreening and a hearing process before being approved for a commutation.

"The process in place is not to just let everybody out of the prisons,” said Sen. Gary Winfield of New Haven, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, appeared with the families of several murder victims on Wednesday and called on Lamont to ask for a moratorium on commutations until he and lawmakers can review the issue.

“Some were, for example, in multiple murders with guns that were involved that were given 100-year sentences and their sentences have been commuted to 28 years,” she said. Thirty years seems to be the magic number for the Board of Pardons and Paroles. It does not seem that they want anyone to spend longer than 30 years (in prison)," she said.

Lamont spokesman Adam Joseph said in a statement that the governor, a Democrat, has called a meeting to discuss the commutation policy before the board's next meeting "to determine if its process can be improved, and to ensure that (the) commutation process balances the importance of second chances for Connecticut prisoners, the perspectives of victims, and public safety considerations.”

The increase in commutations came during an unusual flood of applications — more than 450 total — by inmates over the past two years, said Richard Sparaco, who runs the Board of Pardons and Paroles' day-to-day operations as its executive director.

It isn’t exactly clear why there were so many more applications, Sparaco said, but it could be linked to the fact the board didn’t accept any between 2019 and 2021 while the policy was being revised.

Martin Looney, the Democratic president pro tempore of the Senate, said there were only about 10 commutations between 1995 and 2021 and that the average age for the offenders who received commutations was 23. He said it is important that commutation remain an option.

“We can't accomplish ongoing justice on the single day of sentencing,” he said. “Because as long as life goes on beyond that sentencing day, circumstances may change. Some defendants during the course of their incarceration really are transformed, grow and mature and become very different kinds of people.”

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